Cat Flashback

The McGoff Lecture Series Apartheid Controversy

By Marcus Robyns, NMU Archivist

During the 1980s, the apartheid government of South Africa came under increasing international pressure to end the racist and oppressive economic and political system of apartheid. Across the United States, college and university administrations faced unrelenting pressure from students and faculty demanding an end to their institution’s financial or educational commitments to South Africa.  At Northern Michigan University, the anti-apartheid movement coalesced around opposition to a highly successful visiting lecture series sponsored by a wealthy businessman and Republican Party activist. The lecture series generated a great deal of dissension and debate on campus that raised uncomfortable questions about the nature of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas at NMU.

On July 6, 1978, former and charter member of the NMU Board of Control, John P. McGoff, and his wife, Margaret, donated $300,000 to NMU for the creation of the McGoff Distinguished Lecture Series (MDLS). Over the next ten years, MDLS supported the visit of such notables as former President Gerald Ford, Soviet dissident Alexander Ginzburg, journalist Howard K. Smith and paleontologist Richard E. Leakey. Each visiting lecturer stayed on campus for three days, engaging in a series of classroom lectures and public presentations.

Students and faculty did not oppose the MDLS itself or the selection of visiting speakers; rather, they objected to the source of McGoff’s money. McGoff was the president of Panax Corporation, a newspaper conglomerate that included the Marquette Mining Journal. As a Republican Party activist, he staunchly opposed economic sanctions against South Africa. In 1978, McGoff allegedly accepted $11 million from the South African government in an unsuccessful attempt to purchase several large newspapers to support news reports favorable to the apartheid regime.  In 1985, the U.S. government charged McGoff for being an unregistered agent of the South African government. The following year, he was acquitted by a district court judge who ruled that the statute of limitations had expired.

The controversy and protests surrounding McGoff and the MDLS grew in intensity after 1978, finally culminating ten years later when Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel canceled his impending and much anticipated MDLS. After accepting the invitation, Wiesel had received numerous letters and phone calls informing him of the controversy surrounding McGoff and urging him not to come. He had also learned that faculty and students had organized a series of protest actions during the visit. In a radio interview with Public Radio 90, Wiesel expressed regret and anguish but decided that his visit would cast doubt over the legitimacy of concerns regarding McGoff and his support of apartheid. Wiesel’s decision prompted McGoff to request that NMU end the MDLS and return his $300,000.  The Board of Control voted to do so on April 15, 1988. Wiesel eventually did come to NMU in 1991, but that visit failed to fully heal the divisions among faculty, staff, students and the Marquette community over the ignoble end of the McGoff Distinguished Lecture Series.

The Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives maintains a number of historical records and manuscript collections that document this interesting and contentious period in NMU’s history. You can search the collection finding aids online using ArchivesSpace, the Archives’ new collection management program (follow the link on the nmu.edu/archives home page in the square labeled Regional Historical Manuscript Collections).  Audio recordings of many of the lectures—including those of Gerald Ford, Herman Kahn and Edward Albee—a 1979 debate between philosophy professors Dr. James Greene and Dr. Robert Allan Cooke and digital facsimiles of documents that highlight the different perspectives of the controversy over McGoff and the MDLS are available on the McGoff Distinguished Lecture Series web site.

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